by Anton Chekhov
Jericho Arts Centre
1675 Discovery St.
September 8-October 1
In Chekhov’s The Seagull Konstantin, son of diva actress Irina Arcadina and a passionate wannabe theatre artist himself, says: “We need new forms, and if we can’t have them let’s have no theatre at all!” In this, the first of his great plays, produced by the Moscow Art Theatre in 1897, Chekhov gives shape to a new form: Chekhovian theatre.
Its characteristics are realism mediated by hyper-realism, a smidgen of surrealism, and quite a bit of what would become known as absurdism. Although Chekhov himself, like his great modernist contemporaries Ibsen, Strindberg and Shaw, rejected 19th century European theatre’s melodrama and romanticism, his characters live in exactly those modes. Experiencing the decay of an old era and the beginnings of a terrifying revolutionary new one, they wear their emotions on their sleeves Russian-style: laughing and crying at unexpected, sometimes inappropriate, moments; expressing joy and grief in self-indulgent excess. And through it all, even despite it all, sharing with us their richly complex, sympathetic humanity.
This form Chekhov created is a tricky thing, a delicate thing. It demands a subtle, delicate touch. There are moments in Irina Templeton’s United Players production when Chekhov’s genius survives the onslaught. But much of the time it gets trampled.
We’re on the estate of Irina’s brother Petrusha (Luke Day)—who complains, “I’ve never lived”—where bored, ultra-theatrical Irina (Sally Clark) entertains obsessive novelist Trigorin (Ian Attewell), who eventually runs off with flighty young Nina (Danielle McKechnie), girlfriend of perpetually unhappy Konstantin (Adam Lolacher), who is loved, unrequitedly, by Masha (Wendy Podgursky), always dressed in black, “in mourning for my life.” Masha will eventually marry the smitten teacher (Stephen L.A. Wall), whom she doesn’t love. Meanwhile, Polina (Anne Clark), the wife of the estate manager (Jim Ison), wants to run off with the family doctor (Terry Loychuk), who insists it’s too late for him to change. And the beat goes on.
Templeton maintains a crisp pace, moving her actors around R. Todd Parker’s evocative set of ruined walls, the world the revolution is going to bring to these folks. But many of the actors can’t seem to STOP moving—twitching and twirling and shifting back and forth from one foot to another. And in a number of cases the Chekhovian emotionalism comes off as simple over-acting. Templeton’s interesting device of having all the actors onstage speaking, mumbling, murmuring simultaneously works for about 15 seconds but goes on much too long and feels, as does much else here, heavy-handed.
Most of the actors do have their positive moments, and some manage to shine. I especially liked Podgursky’s profoundly unhappy Masha, Lolacher’s desperate Konstantin, and Loychuk’s stoic doctor, quietly singing through his misery. Attewell handles Trigorin’s semi-hysterical rant about himself with real aplomb. They show off to best effect the Chekhovian “new form” that remains so alluring a century later—and so difficult to capture.